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As they left the ice Saturday afternoon — another win for their season, more heroics for Aleksander Barkov — the Florida Panthers reached a new and exotic destination.
Not just first place in their division. Not just first place in their conference.
First place in all hockey.
It didn’t matter if it lasted only a few hours as Tampa Bay won later Saturday and leapt two points ahead. Let’s not get bogged down in details. Let’s realize the Panthers had never been in first place this deep in a season. Listen to the voice of a changed team that’s begun resurrecting this wrecked franchise.
“We competed, we were on the right side of the puck, won all the 50-50 [battles] — if you do that over and over, it shows in the standings,’' veteran Patric Hornqvist said after the Panthers’ 2-0 win against Nashville. “You know what? We’re a really good team.”
Pause here to led that last quote sink in. We’re a really good team. When’s the last time you heard a Panthers player say that with the standings to back it up? A quarter-century? For years the Panthers have followed two consistent rules:
1. Go golfing in April.
2. Fire a coach or GM a year.
They’ve had 16 coaches and 11 general managers in 23 seasons. Do that math. That goes hand-in-hand with not winning a playoff series since 1996 — making them the picture of consistency in sports more than Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl.
So while being in first place after 30 games might bring a shrug in Montreal or Tampa Bay, it’s worth something more South Florida. ESPN’s power rankings had the Panthers at No. 1 this week, too. That underlines their 44 points tying Tampa and Washington for most in the league for those few hours Saturday.
“It’s a really good accomplishment for us,’' said goalie Chris Driedger, who posted his second career shutout on Saturday. “There’s just a bug in the room this year. I don’t know how many times we’ve come from behind [to win].
“There’s just a belief we can. A game like [Saturday], we didn’t give them anything. I felt my job tonight was pretty straight-forward. In the third period, I think they had four shots.”
Pick a reason for the change. A resurrected defensive corps. Coach Joel Quenneville’s second year. New General Manager Bill Zito’s opening moves. The comeback wins — in 14 of their 20 wins they’ve trailed. Individual stories like Driedger playing strong in the net until Sergei Bobrovsky returned to form of late — or Barkov playing the best hockey in his eight years with the Panthers.
Just this this week in a postgame interview, defenseman MacKenzie Weegar said on FoxSports, “I think [Barkov is] the best player in the world.”
On Saturday, Barkov did what great players do: He delivered the one moment of excellence that decided the game. He took the puck to his backhand and waited, waited, just long enough to take advantage of Nashville goalie Juuse Saros’ lone moment of vulnerability. That’s five goals in five games for Barkov.
Saros was great Saturday in stopping 47 shots (Anthony Duclair added the Panthers’ second goal to an empty net.) All in all, Hornqvist, a new Panther who won two Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, said it was, “I think that was one of our better 60-minute efforts, for sure.”
Hornqvist was one of the new additions another new addition, Zito, brought this offseason. This franchise has had so many newcomers come and go it was hard to foresee change. Thirty games isn’t a season. It’s enough to provide some measure to a team, though. Something’s different.
“We’re pleased with the first part of the year,’' Quenneville said, before adding he expects, “everyone to keep pushing forward.”
The Panthers play Tampa Bay on Sunday afternoon. At stake isn’t some mythical state title. Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cups put any hint of a rivalry on ice years ago. But Sunday is a chance for the Panthers to pull themselves into a tie atop hockey with the defending champs.
The question by now isn’t if the Panthers are a good. It’s how good they might be.